Though Bengal was a trade hub for long, mostly Hindus made their fortune and wealth through business in the British period. Thanks to the British colonial policy, they had expanded their business and gradually started industrial activities in the early 19th century. Muslims’ participation in trade and business activities was minimal, although the spread of Islam in Bengal was primarily linked with trade. Arab traders used to come to the Malabar Coast in southern India even in the fifth century. In later years, the number of India-bound Arab traders started increasing. By the 10th century, their presence in Bengal through the port of Chattogram was notable. They were attracted by the fine cotton goods produced in areas adjoining Dhaka. Muslim Sufis and saints also accompanied the traders who started preaching Islam in Bengal. Hindus and Buddhists who used to suffer immensely due to the crude caste system found the religion of Islam as a window of opportunity to live a better life. The principle of equality of all men and recognition of their dignity in Islam attracted them. Political force, backed by the religious zeal of Islam, arrived in the thirteenth century and conquered new lands. Thus, the spread of Islam in Bengal and the rest of South Asia is a result of a mix of economic-religious-political factors.
However, trade and economic activities in Bengal were largely dominated by non-Bengalis in most cases. Some Muslim traders and businesspeople flourished during the seven hundred years of Muslim rules in Bengal and India. Bengali Hindus, however, started to consolidate their position gradually, having strong support from the colonial rulers and taking advantage of English education. Muslims fell behind due to discriminatory British policy and their reluctance to embrace English education and accept changes. It took around a hundred years to realise that Muslims in Bengal would not be able to advance without being trained in the British-introduced education system. Muslim middle-class in Bengal had started to emerge at the end of the 19th century. Some Muslims inherited the legacy of business in the pre-British period and struggled to continue it generation after generation. They have now found a window to expand their trade.
Nevertheless, a very few Muslim Bengalis were there even in the early 20th century who invested mainly in business and industry. Lack of adequate capital and absence of entrepreneurial skill and enthusiasm in the new world became a barrier to moving ahead in this regard. Instead, they were comfortable with small trading activities, and many of them settled in Dhaka, a trading hub, although not a very big one. Being mostly small traders, they then used to live on the side of the Buriganga River. There were weavers, blacksmiths and potters. The Nawabs of Dhaka later advanced in business and became a trader of hides, skins, and salt. At that time, the French traders were concentrated at Farashganj. The British initially set up their business at Tejgaon areas and later they came to the riverside. However, it was the Armenians who used to do business first with the Nawabs and later got their own. They came from Isfahan of Perisa to Mughal India during the 17th century, and a group of them settled in Dhaka during the middle of the 18th century. They were a vibrant trading community.
Among the few Bengali Muslim businessmen, a prominent name was Lat Mia. After having religious studies, he became Imam of a mosque at Islampur but later concentrated on business. In 1834 AD, he received a leased property in Chawakbazar from Kundus, Zamindar of Bhagyakul (Munshiganj), in exchange for One Taka. The holding number of shops is now 207, and it is 187 years old. Thus the seed of the country's one largest conglomerate, Anwar Group of Industries, was sown. Lat Mia was the grandfather of Anwar Hossain, chairman of the group, who passed away on August 17 this year in Dhaka.
Lat Mia was involved in manufacturing ivory combs and buttons and trading them wholesale to people in business in Kolkata. The demand for buttons increased after the Great Mutiny in 1857 as more British Sepoys were stationed in Dhaka and Kolkata. In the Commercial History of Dhaka, published by Dhaka Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DCCI), Anwar Hossain recalled: "Though my grandfather first started a business, later he was known as a money lender, and that is why he was called a Mahajan. My grandfather either looked after a number of factories or invested money in those. Our business continued uninterrupted since then." (Page-295)
Anwar Hossain's father, Rahim Baksh, soon took over the business after the death of Lat Miah and expanded it. Production took place in Rahmatganj and Hazaribagh areas, and items were then sold to wholesalers located on Harrison Road in Kolkata. In 1914, he started cloth and fabrics trading which became the foundation for Anwar Hossain's business empire in later decades. Anwar Hossain was Rahim Baksh's youngest son. Born in 1938, he entered into the family business at the age of 14.
ANWAR HOSSAIN STARTS HIS JOURNEY: Anwar Hossain, an enthusiastic and energetic young man, had to struggle very hard after his father's death in 1945. In his language: "I started working at a different cloth shop belonging to some other persons as a novice or new entrant to learn business despite the fact that we had our own similar business. …Within six months, I learnt the tid-bits of business. I started cloth business of my own at shop no 220 after giving up my father's shop at 207 Chawkbazar in 1953 with whatever capital I had. By converting some silver coins given by my mother, I started afresh in the name of Anwar Cloth Store." (P-296, Commercial History of Dhaka, DCCI).
It was a landmark event and became a successful venture. At that time, supply used to come from Narsinghdi, Baburhat and Ruhitpur wholesale markets. Anwar Hossain set up a weaving unit titled 'Anwar Weaving Factory' at Ruhitpur (Keraniganj). During the fifties, clothes like poplin, markin, long cloth, chiffon and georgette mainly were imported from Japan and West Pakistan. Anwar decided to print the clothes and sell those at his shop, which was a challenging task. He also travelled to West Pakistan to look for a new market and found that the prominent businessmen had their business centres in Karachi. Following the path, he first opened an office in Karachi in 1960. Within a few years, he became a known Bengali businessman in Karachi, Lahore and Layalpur.
MALA SAREE BRANDING: As the business grew, Anwar Hossain opened new centres in Islampur and Narayanganj, two main hubs of the country's cloth trade. He felt that silk had potential in East Pakistan while all the silk mills were in West Pakistan. So he set up Anwar Silk Mills. "The company found success when it launched Katan sarees made of Silk at a cheap price for weddings and other functions for the middle income people at that time," mentioned the group's website (www.anwargroup.com). What is more noticeable is that his realisation of the necessity of branding to reach more consumers. Thus he named the sarees made in the mill as 'Mala Saree'. It was named after the name of his second daughter Selina Begum Mala.
Mala Saree became very popular during the '70s and '80s. The brand successfully penetrated the market. Mala Saree's commercial in Bangladesh Television (BTV) was one of the renowned advertisements with the jingle 'Mala Saree na dile biya kormu na' (I will not marry until you give me Mala Saree). The tag line of Mala Saree was 'Nobobodhuke modhur shopne rangiey tole (brightens up the new bride with sweet dreams). In 1980, some 250 female students of Dhaka University, also residents of Rokeya Hall, wore Mala Saree to celebrate their rag-day. They were all the students of final year or Masters. Anwar Hossain has gifted them 250 Mala Sarees after some students approached him. He, however, wanted to know first the benefit of the sponsorship. Students replied that it would be good marketing. The experienced and farsighted businessman also watched the rally confirming that Mala Saree was displayed! (Prothom Alo, August 23, 2021). At that time, any marriage ceremony was almost unthinkable without Mala Saree. The brand still prevails with new looks, design and, of course, attractive colour combinations.
FROM STEEL TO LAND: Anwar Hossain believed in expansion with diversity. This is reflected in his works in later decades. In the late 1960's he went for the cutlery industry and set up Manwar Industries Pvt. Ltd at Tejgaon in Dhaka. It was named after his son Manwar Hossain, now the managing director of the group, and the first cutleries industry owned by a Bangalee owner. Flourished in the 70s and 80s, the Manwar Cutleries commercial in BTV was another sign of dynamic marketing. The group started to invest in steel in late 70s by setting up Khaled Iron and Steels Ltd, named after the youngest son Hossain Khaled. He is now managing director of the jute, automobiles and real estate division of the group. The textile network of the group continued to expand in the 80s and 90s.
In 1987, Anwar Steel Mills Ltd was established only to indicate that the group was going to make its strong footprints in the construction industries as well. In the mid-90s, Anwar Galvanising Ltd started operation as 'the first and only manufacturer of its kind in this region of the subcontinent.' Then, the real estate unit Anwar Landmark Ltd was launched in 2001, followed by Anwar Cement in 2002 and Anwar Ispat in 2004. Through its continuous expansion of business in infrastructure, polymer, jute, home decor, and automobiles, the group emerged as one of the country's largest conglomerates. Some 20,000 people are employed in these industrial and business units of Anwar Group now.
VOICE OF TRADE: Anwar Hossain was one of the founders of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI). Established in 1958, it is the largest and most active chamber in the country. The chamber was dominated by non-Bengalis before 1971. After the independence of Bangladesh, he was one of the few businessmen who undertook the lead responsibility to rebuild the chamber for the greater interest of the country's business community and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). He was director of DCCI for three terms - 1976-78, 1982-85 and 1989-90 as "his and his family's relations with the Chamber are very close and deep. He worked for it and, in return, it gave him honour. The DCCI made his son Hossain Khaled twice its president." (Page- 302, Commercial History of Dhaka, DCCI)
Organising the businessmen and work for them was in his blood. His father Rahim Baksh was one the founders of Bishan Shilpa Samity, formed at Amligola in Dhaka in 1939. The office of the association was located at a Jagannath Saha Road house from the '40s. It later shifted to a new address.
Anwar Hossain was also a Member of Parliament (in 1988-1990), and his experience in politics was mixed. In his language: "As a social being, I have some other responsibilities too. My birthplace, the old part of Dhaka, was a neglected area. I stepped into politics temporarily following the demand of the local people in order to materialise their hopes and aspirations. As a Member of Parliament, I sincerely worked with responsibility." (P-303, Commercial History of Dhaka, DCCI) Besides his full-time focus on business, he had worked for social welfare.
LEGACY: The life and works of late Anwar Hossain are vast and diversified. This scribe in this small writeup has attempted to only outline glimpses of a pioneer businessman and industrialist who had proven his worth. He is a unique example of a successful Bengali Muslim businessman who had made his distinctive and illustrious place in the economic history of Bangladesh. Continuation of his legacy will be the best tribute to him. Study of his life and works as well as his autobiography, Amar Aaat Doshok (Eight Decades of My Life), should also be a must-read for business students.